by Deborah Mitchell
Hop Farmer
Hop Farming - What it's like to be a hop farmer

Geterbrewed receive many emails from local guys interested in starting a hop farm but lets face it we don't have the climate in Northern Ireland, we source our hops from a wide range of sources, some from hop merchants and some direct from the hop farmers. We buy hops from American , Europe and Australia, we focus on quality, traceability, consistency of supply and then cold storage and the correct handling and packaging. But what about the hop farmer, does anyone think about their imput to the Craftbeer Industry

I want to highlight one hop farmer in particular, my friend Mihael from Slovenia, we have became great friends as a result of the hop business and we have really pushed Slovenian hops in the UK & Ireland collectively. In my opinion the current issue with the use of hops is that many home brewers aren't experimenting with different varieties, they tend to use a lot of recipe books and as many of the homebrew books are written in America they specifiy the use of American hops, so lets step out of that safe textbook recipe and try something that will produce a truly unique beer, we brewed a collaboration brew with a Slovenian Brewery using only Slovenian Hops and it was really excellent. Look out for it 'Three Bad Bears' Hillstown Brewery & Lobik Brewery Collaboration

I have got to know Slovenian Hops well in the past few years and Mihael and his family are driven to acheive perfection, they work ethic is clear when you visit and I have to say they always impress me, the very farm yards and kilns are spotless clean, they are genuinely passionate about their business. I've asked Mihael a few questions and noted his answers to help highlight to you what it's like to be a hop farmer, read on...

1. What is it like being a hop farmer and what made you get into hop farming?

We are a third generation hop growing family, my Grandfather and my Dad got into growing hops primarily for economic reasons. The region that we live in has been growing hops since the 18th century but due to the impact of the hop market and worldwide hop trade the volumes can come and go. After Yugoslavia fell apart we lost a large market percentage but with the current European Union we have been able to export hops, we are passionate about the quality we want to grow the finest hops we possibly can , we are not driven by price we want to focus on quality

2. Does the region that you live in produce a different quality hop to other regions within Slovenia?

Due to Climate change the growing region has started to become more and more important, we are blessed with our location and we can grow some beautifully impressive hop varieities as do our friends and colleagues. We work very closely with a collective of farmers in our area, we are constantly striving to bring better results.There isn't any set scientific stats to suggest that the hops in this region are better than other parts of Slovenia but when you look at the hop analysis and you see alpha acids and oil contents at a 20% higher rate comparing to other regions then we are thankful for our location. There is alot of factors that impact each individual region, for example daily maximum temperatures during maturation of the crop, pest and disease management and harvesting at the correct time and following a low temperature drying base.

3. Many Irish and UK brewers regard Slovenian Hops as being used purely for bittering, what have been the recent developments been in flavouring and aroma hops?

I wouldn't say that we have been regarded as good in bittering hops ever? It is perhaps a misconception and I would like to see that opinion change. We don't have high alpha acid varieties in our portfolio of hops. Historically some German Magnum hop plants were used to breed Slovenian Dana which has roughly the same alpha acid range. Slovenian Hops have a strong reputation for Aroma and Noble aroma hops. Varieties like Aurora, Styrian Golding, Bobek and Savinjski Golding are dominated in our fields. Since the worldwide explosive interest in Craft Beer the Slovenian Hop Institute has tried to breed varieties that are more attractive for the Craftbeer sector. You will see an example of this research already in the marketplace with the variety "Wolf", it is also perfectly rounded bitterness with high alpha acids for bittering. Checkout the new varieties Styrian Cardinal, Styrian Dragon and Styrian Fox.

4. What way does the year get broken down in terms of hop farming?

Our hop farming schedule is from middle of March til November. The ground works required during Spring come with high labour costs. We need to clean the fields from wooden parts of the zhizomes, stringing of new wires. The Twining of the hops takes place during May/June. During the peak growing season we try to keep the fields clear of weeds, in doing this we are not using any chemicals or the popular choice elsewhere to use Glyphosate preparators. We focus on proper mechanical processes instead of chemicals.

During the July/August period we are checking constantly to manage diseases, we are fighting against all kinds of mites and moulds, to provide a healthy crop on occasion we do have to use some agricultural products to keep the plants healthy to produce cones full of aroma. Infected hop cones have many disadvantages or bad smells in your beers if this isn't cared for.

At the end of August we commence the harvest, this is when we work the longest hours. There is a wealth of information and scientific papers of when to commence the hop harvest but in reality we rely on our pinch of instinct and lifetime experiences. The most crucial part in the harvesting window is hop drying...Never more than 58 degrees celcius and it has to be carried out as quickly as possible. We ensure that a huge amount of hot air is blowing through a few layers of hops. There is an old proverb "The more you can smell around the barn the more you lose at the end"

After the drying process in the kiln we re moisten the hops which keeps the product stable while we pack them.

5. Hop Farming is one of the most difficult choices to make in farming, do you focus solely on hops or do you farm anything else?

We are 100% focused on hop farming. Since we don't strive to own anymore property or land we try to maximise the output from our current fields, this isn't an easy task but it is enough, at the end of the day we reach the point where all the work is still a joy and a pleasure.

6. What size is your hop farm?

We are around average for Slovenia, working slightly below 15 hectares

7. How long does it take to grow hops?

After we put the rhizomes into the soil it takes up to three years until they reach full maturity, this changes depending on the variety you grow but usually its a 3 year average.

8. Is it difficult to grow hops? What are the challenges?

It depends, if you have a goal and see yourself in a ten year timeframe, taking into consideration what you want to be and what you want to bring to the market, then its a really rewarding and nice job. We feel the proudest when our customers give us proper feedback. Sometimes it isn't always positive, buy hey, that gives us a new goal, to improve ourselves.

The single biggest challenge.... the weather! In the past this didn't have the same impact there used to be a good solid average yield. But in the last ten years things have really changed, we are constantly breaking temperature records, participations variations during the growing season are problematic. We can cope with a few months of dry hot weather as we can irigate but hail stones....we can cope with the damage they cause

9. How long can you keep hops?

In proper conditions, up to four years

10. How do you recommend hops are stored?

On the lowest temperature possible, perfect scale is from 0-5 degrees and nitrogen flushed foil bags to avoid any oxidation

11. What is you preference for brewers to use, pellets or leaf?

Brewers often explain to me that with the cones they get much more aroma but they lose more with the green matter, we are happy to supply either hop cones or pellets. European brewers mainly uses pellets for a heap of positive reasons

12. Have you ever smoked a hop?

Licking your fingers during the harvest is brave enough, so smoking is really not needed

13. What is your favourite hop variety?

From a hop farming perspective , its Aurora. Its resistant to many diseases and its always consistent plus brewers love it

14. What predictions do you have for the future of hop farming?

Like I already mentioned before the weather is becoming a huge factor but there is lots of other issues we are facing. Labour costs are going up and we want to have happy people working for us in our fields, at the end of the day they bring in the crop, their impact is huge on the finished hop product.

In the other hand, the civilised society look down on hop farming as an ugly industry but overall we are one of the most precise and advanced branches in agriculture. We don't do anything from our own instincts, every little thing is planned, forecast and trackable, we want to protect our environment like it is for the future generations.

"The main players in shaping the hop industry are the you the brewers. I'm asking you to take a look at what you are doing with the craft brewing industry, all of you are talking about the famous C varieties, I challenge you to try something old, something traditional, expand your portfolio and don't be afraid to look for something new. We are here for you, striving to grow only the finest quality hops and predict your needs accurately be realistic. Regardless of the crop the brewing business should be solid and stable through the whole chain."